I'm confused about what seems to be a contradiction between statements from sections I and II of the introduction of (Meiklejohn's translation of) Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

The section I statement is

"Every change has a cause," is a proposition á priori, but impure, because change is a conception which can only be derived from experience.

The section II statement is

If we cast our eyes upon the commonest operations of the understanding, the proposition, "Every change must have a cause," will amply serve our purpose.

This section II statement is meant to be exemplifying a judgement which is pure á priori. The section II example is basically the same as the section I example except now has the word "must", which seems to be functioning to guarantee that the latter example entails necessity, which makes the proposition pure. So on one hand, the section II example is pure because it entails necessity. But on the other hand, it is impure because, just like the section I example, it refers to the concept of change, which can only be derived from experience.

Is change in this section II example no longer a concept which can only be derived from experience? Or have I misinterpreted something prior? Or something else?

I've consulted also the Guyer and Wood translation, and that didn't clear up my confusion.

  • Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind - Do you assume that there could be such a thing as a concept that does not involve experience in any way? Also, the point is that the proposition as a whole cannot be derived from experience, isn't it?
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 3, 2019 at 19:50
  • @PhilipKlöcking Thank you. I don't understand why you said "Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind"; seems true though. Mind elaborating on that? Regarding your questions, I'm not sure if there's a concept that does not involve experience in any way. What do you think? And to your second question: if it's about the proposition as a whole, then why in the first statement does he say it's only about the nature of the concept of change and not that it's about the proposition as a whole? Jul 4, 2019 at 19:26

1 Answer 1


This is a nice catch, Kant is indeed inconsistent in his use of "pure". Below I am quoting from the Guyer's 1998 translation of the Critique.

In Section I Kant first distinguishes between empirical and a priori, then among the latter, between relative and absolute, and, finally, among the absolute, between pure and impure propositions/judgments. The "pure absolute" means that not even the concepts within are derived from experience. Alas, this scope of "pure" turns out to be empty outside of mathematics, and the Critique is mostly about application of a priori cognition to empirical matters. What follows is a common phenomenon in language use: when a term becomes idle in some context (here, use of understanding outside of mathematics) its meaning is shifted to make it useful again.

So in the second section Kant redefines the "pure", without announcing it, by adding "strictly universal" to what he previously called "absolute". At the start of B5 he states as much:

"Now it is easy to show that in human cognition there actually are such necessary and in the strictest sense universal, thus pure a priori judgments."

However, "strictly universal" just means "in such a way that no exception at all is allowed to be possible" (B4), which certainly does not rule out the use of concepts derived from experience. He then first gives an example from mathematics, which qualifies as originally "pure", but only concerns forms of sensibility, and then predicates his second example on "if one would have one from the commonest use of the understanding". Well, the "commonest use of the understanding" is unifying sensible experience, so it can not possibly provide anything "pure" in the original sense.

"If one wants an example from the sciences, one need only look at all the propositions of mathematics; if one would have one from the commonest use of the understanding, the proposition that every alteration must have a cause will do; indeed in the latter the very concept of a cause so obviously contains the concept of a necessity of connection with an effect and a strict universality of rule that it would be entirely lost if one sought, as Hume did, to derive it from a frequent association of that which happens with that which precedes and a habit..."

What's more, it turns out that "strict universality" does not really add anything to "necessity", and hence "absoluteness", except the ease of verification. In other words, the original pure/impure distinction within the absolute a priori is essentially erased.

"Necessity and strict universality are therefore secure indications of an a priori cognition, and also belong together inseparably. But since in their use it is sometimes easier to show the empirical limitation in judgments than the contingency in them, or is often more plausible to show the unrestricted universality that we ascribe to a judgment than its necessity, it is advisable to employ separately these two criteria, each of which is in itself infallible."

This is confirmed by the opening sentence of Section II, which plainly ignores all the finer distinctions and simply opposes "pure" (absolute a priori) to "empirical":"At issue here is a mark by means of which we can securely distinguish a pure cognition from an empirical one".

  • So at that point in the text, is the only way to infer that he has shifted the meaning of pure to infer it from the use of "commonest" (together with the fact that he would've been aware of such an obvious contradiction), as you suggested? Jul 6, 2019 at 4:22
  • @QuinnCulver For me, it is the preponderance of textual evidence: the opening of Section II, the necessary/universal test, the "commonest use", the obviousness. At first, I thought that this is an artifact of translation, but Kant uses reinen/reines in the German original in both places as well. We can add to that the "pure reason" of the book's title, which has to be meant in the broad sense given its content. A charitable reading is that the narrow sense of section I is a one off colloquial, non-terminological use of "pure".
    – Conifold
    Jul 6, 2019 at 4:52

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